Doctor Who: where do I start?

As we approach series 8, a friend asked, "So, how do I watch Doctor Who? Do I start from the beginning? Where is the beginning? What do I do??"

This is a common question which I myself asked once, and getting an answer (from a Whovian friend) helped not be overwhelmed by over 50 years of episodes. So here is my take on it.

I'm assuming that the intent here is to watch past episodes to get a feel for it and understand context. You could of course simply start with the new, 8th season and move on from there, but there is so much good Who to watch! Also, Doctor Who builds on itself quite a lot, and, while usually not required, it's a lot more fun to get the references.

First of all, a quick summary of terminology and broadcasting history: Doctor Who was first broadcast in 1963 (with, obviously, the First Doctor), and went on somewhat steadily until the 90s (with the 8th Doctor appearing in a one-off movie). We'll call it "the original series", or "the old series". It then went on a hiatus for about 10 years. In 2005 the series resumed, with the 9th Doctor, and has been going on uninterrupted since. This is "the new series", or "the 2005 series".

Note that, in the Doctor Who universe, it's all the same Doctor. Same storyline and everything. The 2005 series was not a "reboot", not a "remake", not a "reimagining". It's just new episodes of the same series.

So, my general advice is: start somewhere in the new series until you've watched the whole of it it. Then, if you like it, go back and watch the old series (which has quite a different pace, and not everybody gets into it).

Having said all this, there are a few different options of specifically where to start, depending on your level of commitment:

Low commitment, or "Let's see what this is about"

If you just want to watch one episode and see what the fuss is about, I recommend watching "Blink" (10th Doctor, episode 3.10 of the 2005 series). When I first watched it, I played it again as soon as it was over :)

Alternatively (or following that), you can watch the double episode "Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead" (10th Doctor, episodes 4.9 and 4.10). The final scene is slightly silly, but overall it's excellent.

More alternatively (or following the two above), watch the 11th Doctor's first episode, "The 11th Hour" (episode 5.1). It works particularly well as an introduction, as both the Doctor and the production team are new.

Finally, even more alternatively, and to mention an episode with the 9th Doctor (remember, the first one to appear on the new series), you can watch "The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances" (episodes 1.9 e 1.10). An excellent sequence, with an excellent - and, in my opinion, underrated - Doctor.

At any point in this sequence (including at the end of it), you can decide you like Doctor Who after all, and jump straight to one of the following:

Small marathon, or "Let's see one Doctor from beginning to end"

If you're in the mood for a more uninterrupted marathon, start with the 11th Doctor (series 5), and watch it all the way through until season 7. Remember not to skip specials, including the 50th-year one.

Alternatively, start with "Silence in the Library" (episode 4.9, mentioned above) and watch it from there on. This means a few episodes at the end of season 4, a few specials that comprised the 2009 "series", and then the 11th Doctor. I love this final sequence of the 10th Doctor's episodes.

Watch it all the way to the end, then possibly any new episodes of series 8 that might have already aired (with the new 12th Doctor), then go back to 2005 and watch all that's left, in order.


Full Who Marathon, or "I want it all!"

If you think you want to watch it all anyway, and are willing to forgive a period of some inconsistency as they adjusted into the new series (but even then with excellent episodes, and, again, in my opinion an excellent Doctor), just go with series 1 of the 2005 series. Watch it all, rewatch a few, memorise lines, from then on it's up to you :)

Now, if you'll excuse me, after all this Who talk I feel like I have a marathon to start...

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The evolution of a Lego Mindstorms Mars Rover

Last weekend I (oh, and about 9000 other people) participated in NASA's International Space Apps Challenge. My team worked on the Curiosity at Home challenge, split in three parts: translating NASA's SPICE data format to a more readable form, parsing that into commands to the rover, and building a representation of the Curiosity Mars rover itself.

The code is available on Github. It still needs some work, but, you know, hackathon.

I worked on building the rover, using Lego Mindstorms, and it proved to be trickier than I had anticipated. Most times it would look great, but then refuse to steer or even move at all, as soon as some weight was put onto it. And by weight I mean the NXT brick, which we felt was an indispensable component of the rover.

I'm in the process of disassembling the rover and taking photos of it, so that I can then rebuild it and document the build steps. But, in the meantime, a quick recap of how it evolved throughout the (mostly sleepless) weekend. Unfortunately, I don't have pictures of every intermediate version.

Iteration 2

By this point, we had an initial, flimsier version. But I wanted more robustness, as well as proper front-wheel steering. At this point, the motor powered 4 wheels. Here it is (with Frits, as a bonus):

Lego rover, iteration 2

Iteration 6. Probably

Yeah, I don't remember exactly which iteration these pictures correspond to. Have I mentioned "sleepless"?

Anyway, you'll notice this version is shorter, meaning less strain on the middle section, better distribution of weight and, we hoped, better steering. By then, we had already moved to a motor powering only two wheels, and now we have finally started using two separate motors, one for each rear wheel.

Lego rover, iteration 6

Iteration 8, I think

Shorter, sturdier, and uses different rotations of the the back wheels for steering, as well as the front wheel gears.

I was disappointed with the middle wheels, by this point they were mostly just for show. But the deadline approached, and we had to make decisions.

Lego rover, iteration 8

Iteration 10, final version

Not too many changes from the previous iteration, mostly some incremental adjustments. This is what we presented, and worked reasonably well (all things considered).

Lego rover, iteration 10 (final)

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Automated Python testing with nose and tdaemon

If you're testing your code at all (and you are, right?), it's awfully convenient to automatically have your test suite run whenever something in your project changes. This is particularly handy if you're doing test-driven development (TDD), where you'll be writing a lot of tests and need immediate feedback on them.

With Python this is made easy with the help of nose and tdaemon.

In a hurry? Jump straight to the summary!


Both tdaemon and nose can be installed via Cheeseshop (or "PyPI", for the suits), using pip:

sudo pip install nose tdaemon

(You might not need sudo, depending on your setup).

An interlude: pip versus easy_install

You can use easy_install instead of pip. It should work just fine, for what we're trying to do here. But do yourself a favor and switch over to pip. It's as simple as

sudo easy_install pip

Another interlude: whither tdaemon?

If you google "tdaemon", the first result is a github tree from Bruno Bord, tdaemon's author. The version at Cheeseshop (yes, I'll keep calling it "Cheeseshop", damn it!) lists John Paulett as author and points back to the github repository as its home page. Both versions are almost exactly alike, except that the Cheeseshop one has a slight enhancement (a command-line argument to ignore specific directories). John Paulett took tdaemon, added that feature and packaged it for Cheeseshop. So we'll use his version.

Getting cute notifications

So far, if you simply execute tdaemon on a terminal, it'll monitor the current directory and run nosetests whenever it detects a change. Which is fine, but I don't want to switch to the terminal all the time while I'm programming, if I don't have to. So let's arrange our environment so that we get visual alerts every time the tests are run.

On Mac OS X

I assume you already have Growl on your Mac. If you don't, install it, it makes your life easier (if you don't know, it should be at the bottom row on your System Preferences panel).

The NoseGrowl nose plugin provides Growl notifications. Unfortunately, NoseGrowl installation from PyPI is currently broken: there is only an egg for Python 2.5 on Cheeseshop. The original source code on bitbucket has a bug on, but Osvaldo Santana was kind enough to fork and fix it. So:

hg clone
cd nosegrowl/nose-growl
sudo python install

By the way, NoseGrowl's author, Victor "crankycoder" Ng, told me a few months ago that he was looking for someone to take over for him. So, if you find the project useful, please consider talking to Victor and volunteering to maintain it. Might make him less cranky :) [Edit: perhaps Osvaldo will step up?]

On Linux (Gnome)

There is a NoseGrowl-inspired plugin adapted to use Gnome's notification system. It's called nose-notify and can be installed directly from Cheeseshop:

sudo pip install nose-notify

I don't know if there is a notification plugin for KDE. If you do, let me know and I'll add it here!

Putting it all together

Open a terminal window and cd to the root directory of your project (tdaemon recursively looks at everything down from there).

If you're on OS X, type:

tdaemon --custom-args="--with-growl"

If you're on Linux, type:

tdaemon --custom-args="--with-notify --no-start-message"

Since you're passing custom arguments to nosetests, tdaemon will ask you to confirm that this is the command you want to run. Simply type "y".

Note that, on Linux, nose-notify has a "--no-start-message" option. This is handy, as the start message is mostly useless, and, on Ubuntu, it sticks for a few seconds and delays the actual test results.

Now you can create a file called, say, "", add tests to it and watch what happens as you save it!





Install nose and tdaemon:

sudo pip install nose tdaemon

On Mac OS X, install NoseGrowl:

hg clone
cd nosegrowl/nose-growl
sudo python install

and run as:

tdaemon --custom-args="--with-growl"

On Linux, install nose-notify:

sudo pip install nose-notify

and run as:

tdaemon --custom-args="--with-notify --no-start-message"

That's it. Happy coding!

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Yahoo! Open Hack Day Brasil 2010

On March 20th and 21st, Yahoo! Brazil brought us our second Open Hack Day. I'd been to the previous one, in 2008, and it was amazing! Our project even won at a newly-created category, aptly named "What the Hack?"

This year, I wanted once again to try a hardware hack, using whichever parts I could get my hands on. Not necessarily anything useful, though. That's what I love about the Hack Day. I can do useful stuff throughout the rest of the year :)

Image © brhackday, used with permission

Yahoo! Hack Days

Before the 2008 Hack Day, I had pretty much written off Yahoo! as a company that was no more. I wasn't even particularly interested on the event, and only decided to go at the last minute. Boy, what a change in perspective. Of course, Yahoo!'s São Paulo team has some very clever people. But, more generally, I was very impressed with the data-gathering tools that Yahoo! had started offering. YQL is simply fantastic. It perfectly captures what the Internet is about, data-wise (I'm not saying it's perfect, but it embodies the right spirit). I hadn't had that much geek fun in a long time. So you can probably tell my expectations were high for this year's edition. Could Yahoo! deliver?

Not to fret, they knew what they were doing. Just put some 250 hackers in a fish bowl, give them food, coffee, wifi (surprisingly good, some silly proxy restrictions excluded), show them Monty Python, and wait for it!

Our hack, and our hackers

Image © brhackday, used with permission

Even before the announcement of this year's Hack Day, I'd been toying with the (admittedly silly) idea of a firefighting robot, that lurked online waiting for people to report fires anywhere in the world. It would then bravely roll over to wherever the fire was, and put it out. Bravely.

Trouble is, it'd probably have to be one gargantuan robot. So I thought I'd settle for a more modest, Lego-built, Arduino-controlled one. With the Hack Day approaching, I suggested this project to a few friends and we created a Wave to discuss the idea. I was planning to use a box of old Lego pieces from my childhood (see mom? I told you I'd have eventually use those again!) and a couple of servo motors I had lying around, but Rodolpho brought his Mindstorms NXT into the picture, making the project much cooler (and, incidentally, much more manoeuvrable).

On Saturday morning I rode with Gola to the (really cool) auditorium of Senac University, where the previous Hack Day had already been hosted. There we met Rodolpho and Mobi, our original team. We had found out the day before that there would be a limit of 4 people on each team, this year. In 2008 our team had been comprised of... 12? 15? I never even knew. We'd simply started building weird, blinking stuff, and people had gathered around for the fun. We got, therefore, a bit disappointed with this edition's limit. But, since we weren't really expecting to win anything (and therefore disqualification wasn't an issue), we bent the rules a bit, and Werneck, Lucmult and Mauro hacked with us. Also, Aline joined us a bit later. Since Werneck and Lucmult eventually had to leave and didn 't return for Sunday, and Aline and Mobi didn't program, I think we were sort of in the clear. Technically. Sort of.

And then we started building.

What we built

The robot, in construction. Photo by alickel

The body of the robot ended up using mainly the Mindstorms parts. We had started building a larger, sturdier body with assorted Lego pieces on top of a rigid board, pulled by front-wheel drive with four wheels in the front and a loose trailing one. But, after a lot of testing, the loose wheel kept veering the robot out of track, so we rebuilt everything with a lighter, smaller frame, and a pair of caterpillars tracks. In hindsight, I think we should have kept the larger body (even if rethinking wheel traction), as it gave the robot more stability, which we would come to miss later. But we had to make a quick decision, and we worked with what we had. The NXT controller sat on the robot and communicated with an external server via bluetooth, relaying control input to the wheels and sending back odometry information.

This external server (actually, Rodolpho's notebook) continuously used YQL to query Twitter, Yahoo! Meme and news feeds (which I originally wanted to aggregate using Yahoo! Pipes, but we didn't have time for it), searching for people reporting fires - a simple string search, filtered by the Yahoo! Term Extraction API. Whenever there were reports, the server would send them through the Placemaker API to extract location information. It then determined which location in the world was in most urgent need of aid (by number of reports).

Now, the tricky part: the robot needed to be aware of a rectangular projection of the world onto the room, and to know its own location on it. I don't mean a visual projection. We did consider it, but realised that it would be unfeasible for the Hack Day. We toyed with the idea of printing (or drawing) a world map on large sheets and taping then to the ground, but the robot would surely slip, trip, or tear the sheets. So we settled for an abstract projection, and, based on information sent back from the robot, plotted its estimated current position in the "world", at each instant, using Yahoo! Maps and the Yahoo! Geocoding API (via geopy).

To locate itself, the robot relied on Mindstorms' odometry feedback, and on QR Code markers distributed around the room, read by an Android phone using Python and the Barcode Scanner app. The Android phone sent the information encoded in each QR Code to a custom service built with Python's SimpleHTTPServer, which our server polled. The server then sent back new movement controls, according to the robot's current position and desired target. We tried to use Mindstorms' sonar and colour sensors, but they just wouldn't work reliably with the Python interface (which we needed to send commands programatically via bluetooth).

A happy robot. Image © codepo8 CC BY 2.0

No one likes an impersonal robot, and ours, accordingly, had a face in order to convey emotions. We used an XO laptop as the head, and defined that the robot would have pre-determined emotions depending on the situation: it would be "at rest" when there were no fires going on, "worried" when it was going towards a fire, and "happy" when it had put the fire out. A Python script running in the background continuously searched Flickr (using YQL) for expressions associated with each of these emotions, and downloaded a number of related pictures. Another script queried the robot's current emotional state (set by the server), and displayed an appropriate random subset of these pictures. For every few of them, we'd display a face that Aline had drawn specifically for that emotion, to make up for the fact that we couldn't be sure if the pictures would depict it (people give the weirdest tags and descriptions to their Flickr uploads...).

We originally meant to use an Arduino to control a servo that would squish some water from a syringe, thus putting out the fire once the robot got to its destination. But all that proved too much for a mere 24h, and we had to settle for a manual pump.

A camera-shy robot, and a sleepy presenter

Of course, we'd tested (almost) everything, and the robot worked (almost) perfectly. (Almost) Great. But, when it was time to go up on the stage, we hit a few snags.

First, there was only one large screen. Of course, we'd known that, but it hadn't occurred to us that people would need to see not only the robot (which was tiny, especially at a distance), but also the map showing its movement towards the fire, at several different moments. Yahoo! had predicted even such an eventuality (seriously, guys, kudos!) and provided us with a way to switch between our server's screen and the feed from a video camera which Aline used to film the robot. But I didn't manage to coordinate the switch properly, and we didn't get to show the animated map.

Also, we had already noticed that the XO weighed a lot compared to the rest of the robot (remember what I said about the previous, sturdier version?), and that, in order to steer, we needed to balance it carefully. I didn't, and the robot soon went out of its path.

Finally, we had used so many different technologies and APIs on this project, and most of them simply vanished from my mind when I started presenting! Note to self: next time, write some hints on the back of my hand...

All I have to say for myself is that I had slept for only about 1 hour since the previous morning, ours was one of the last projects to be presented, and by then I was very sleepy and barely able to react. I should have switched from the camera to the map more often, so people could see what was going on. I should have grabbed the robot when it went off track and restarted the demo. I should have asked my teammates for help when trying to list everything at work on the robot. Shame on me.

But, all in all, I think it was a great project, and I'm very proud of it. I'm especially proud of my team, you rock much more than I was able to show :)

And, next year, I promise to take a nap before presenting!

The Robot. Image © brhackday, used with permission

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Google Wave invite giveaway result!

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Google Wave invite giveaway!

I've just drawn a random name from those who followed the giveaway rules (on Google Reader, "like" one of the other two posts on this site, and share the giveaway one). I've recorded the drawing process, so you can see it was done in all fairness:

*[I had embedded a video here, but some people reported problems with it. So now here's a screenshot, and you can see the video separately, if you want; sorry]*

Giveaway drawing

Congratulations, Sviatoslav S, you get the Google Wave invite! Please add some contact information (at least temporarily) to your Google profile, so I can send you your invite. If you have any questions please send me an email or leave a comment on this post. I hope to hear from you soon!


It turns out I do have a second invite! And, ironically enough, I found it quite hard to get rid of it...

Once I found out I had the extra invite, I quickly drew another name from the list:

Second giveaway, first drawing - it sank into the swamp

Congratulations, Maurizio! You... Oh, wait. Apparently he's not following the rules of the giveaway. I can't really tell whether he never has or if he gave up after the first invite went out, but rules are rules. So let's draw another one:

Second giveaway, second drawing - that sank into the swamp

Hooray! Brian was one of the first to participate when I announced the giveaway. So I contacted him. But he had already been invited by somebody else, and graciously allowed me to hand the invite over to another participant. So...

Second giveaway, third drawing - intermission

Right. Daniduc is already in Google Wave. He had actually "liked" and "shared" the posts before I announced the giveaway, and had already told me he wouldn't need the extra invite. Next!

Second giveaway, fourth drawing - burnt down, fell off, then sank into the swamp

Ah! I'd talked to Leonardo just yesterday, and he didn't have a Wave account yet! So congr... Ah, he got his from someone else this morning. Right. But the fifth one...

Second giveaway, fifth drawing - stayed up!

So that's what you're going to get, Badá! The strongest castle in these islands A Google Wave invite! I've already added you to the list, hopefully Google will send you the invite soon.

As for the others, thank you so much for participating!

Hope to see you all soon on Google Wave :)

Update: Since the giveaway has ended, I'm closing this entry's comments (which are starting to become a spam nest). If you want a Google Wave invite, let me know, I might still have some.

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Giving away one Google Wave invite (or two)

Update: This giveaway has now ended, and the results are in!

Update 2: Since the giveaway has ended, I'm closing this entry's comments (which are starting to become a spam nest). If you want a Google Wave invite, let me know, I might still have some.

So, Google Wave is quickly reaching a stage of being actually useful for daily communication. I've used it for planning trips and dinner parties, coordinating server maintenance, doing collaborative translation and just generally chatting, with varying levels of success.

I got my invite to the sandbox (a developer preview, not integrated with the rest of Google's services) after attending Google Developer Day São Paulo. I played around for a while, but it was too unstable. A few weeks later it had improved considerably, so I started using it again. But too few people I knew were there, and its use as a communications tool was therefore obviously impaired.

A few weeks ago, then, Google promoted Wave to, and there was much rejoicing. As a sandbox user, I got an invite to it, and with it 8 more to give away. I distributed them to a few close friends, but ended up with one left!

And that's the one you might get :)

"But how?"

[updated about 1h after originally posting, to correct the rules]

Google Wave invite

It's really simple. After a long period of inactivity, I've resumed writing on There are currently two posts (not counting this one): one about programming Python on the Android, and a recipe for Spaghetti alla Carbonara. So, access's RSS feed on Google Reader and pick the one you like best. Then "like" it (by clicking the proper button at the bottom of the appropriate post, on the Reader screen), and share this post (the one you're reading right now).

To make it clear: you should "like" one of the other two posts currently published ("Pushing up Python on Android" or "Spaghetti alla Carbonara"), and share this one ("Giving away one Google Wave invite (or two)"). You may also share and like others at will, but that's the minimum to qualify for the giveaway.

Important: if you "share" and "like" from someone's shared items, or some other address you might have (if you used to subscribe to this site's old feed, for instance), it won't show up on my count and I can't know you've done it! So the safest bet is to go straight to the feed on Google Reader and choose from there (like so). In any event, if you feel that there is any confusion, let me know.

Within three days (that is, on Saturday the 24th of October) I'll collect a list of the people who've liked any of the articles and pick one at random. If that person has also shared the article, they get the invite (otherwise, I'll just pick another one from the list, and so on). I'll post the results here on Saturday, and I'll also contact whoever was selected via their Google account (if you want me to use a different email, let me know in the comments or "Share with note" and leave a comment to that effect there).

"What if I share and like both articles?"

Well, you'll make me very happy, please do! But it won't improve your chances, I'm afraid.

"I already have a Wave account (or don't want one), but I'd like an invite for a friend"

Sure, no problem. If you are selected, just let me know the email to which I should send the invite.

"But I don't have a Google Reader account!"

Well, a Google Reader account is just a regular Google account. If you've never used Reader, just give it a try, it's really simple. If you don't have a Google account at all, you'll need one for Google Wave anyway, so you might as well create it now!

"If I'm picked, how long until I have a Google Wave account?"

That's not up to me. Google Wave invites actually mean Google will know that someone invited you when the time comes for them to offer a new round of accounts. But they don't say when that will happen, or even whether everyone on the current invite list will get an account on the next round. In practice, accounts have been handed out at a relatively high pace, but I can't be sure.

All I can promise is that I'll put your email address on my invitation list as soon as you confirm it.

"Wait, the title said or two!"

That's right. I might have an additional invite. It's a bit of a long story, but I can't be sure. So, if it turns out that I do, I'll pick two people. Otherwise, that's just one lucky winner :)

"But... But... I am your friend and didn't get an invite from you! I even asked on Twitter!"

Calm down, don't be offended. First of all, most of my invites went to the people with whom I exchanged the most emails and instant messages. Makes sense, right? Besides, some of the people to whom I had promised invites ended up not needing them (having received one by other means), so I didn't know from the start I still had invites left.

Finally, I specifically avoided giving them out to people asking around on Twitter (as opposed to asking me personally). Asking in broadcast mode meant that, by the time I invited you, someone else might have also done so. From my experience with the other people I've invited, multiple invites don't seem to make your account arrive any sooner. As Google Wave invites are currently somewhat scarce, that would be a waste of one, which would be a shame. And I want the highest number of people on Wave, the sooner the better.

"I have more questions! You can't predict and fake-quote them all!"

True. Leave me a comment!

And good luck! See you on the Wave :)

Sharing and Liking on Google Reader

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Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Carbonara is widely known as a simple recipe, but for the longest time it seemed a bit mysterious to me. I'd watch a friend mix a few ingredients together, in what seemed destined to become some sort of spaghetti omelet, only to be presented with a beautiful - and delicious - meal. Then one day I came across David Leite's recipe. It seemed simple enough. Well, it seemed short enough that it'd be simple. So I tried it.

And, well, it wasn't bad, but came out a bit clumpy and dry. So I tried again. And again. And read some very helpful comments on Leite's article. And found some variations of the recipe. And experimented a bit. So now I'm finally happy with my Carbonara, and hopefully you'll find it as easy and rewarding as I do! :)

Carbonara © alickel

I used to make it with bacon, which is ok but sort of overwhelms all other flavours in the dish. I've recently purchased some excellent pancetta and let me tell you, Carbonara just isn't the same without it. Actually, apparently Carbonara is supposed to be made with guanciale, but I haven't managed to lay my hands on some yet (But I will. I will). So use pancetta if you can, but don't let that stop you otherwise. Bacon is fine. Or try both and let me know if you can tell the difference. And do drop a line if you use guanciale!

Grated Pecorino © alickel

Another small but significant detail: I've found many recipes that use only Pecorino cheese. However, David Leite uses a 3-to-1 mix of Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Parmesan) and Pecorino. I usually cook Carbonara with Parmesan (it's more easily available around here), but the Parmesan/Pecorino mix is indeed more flavourful. However, I think using only Pecorino would, again, come out too strong and break the balance.

So let's get to it. The quantities are good for 3 people (or two, with repeats; at least that's how it goes around here). It takes about 30 minutes from start to finish, but allow a bit more on your first try.



  • 1 large pot for cooking the spaghetti
  • 1 large skillet or frying pan for the pancetta - and afterwards for mixing in the sauce and the spaghetti, so make sure it's big enough! Use a regular pan with the widest possible bottom, if you don't have a large skillet.
  • 1 mixing bowl
  • 1 measuring jar or similar container, good for at least 2 cups of water. One with a handle would be nice, so you can just dip it into the cooking pot
  • 1 sharp knife
  • 1 pair of tongs


  • A little olive oil, just enough for a few splashes on the skillet. I usually don't bother with extra-virgin, as it has a lower smoke point than standard olive oil.
  • 200g of pancetta
  • 3L of water
  • 250g of spaghetti (or, if you're feeling hungry, perhaps a bit more, say 2/3 of a 500g package)
  • 1 tablespoon of salt
  • 2 large eggs, plus two egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup of Pecorino cheese and 1/4 cup of Parmesan, grated and mixed together
  • Black pepper, to be ground on the spot


Fill the cooking pot with water and put it to boil. Add 1 tablespoon of salt (at any point).

Pancetta © alickel

In the meantime, slice the pancetta in cubes. I like them larger, about 1.5 or 2cm on each side, but you can make them smaller if you like. I sometimes cut some of the fat out, but never all of it, since it helps grease the pan (and tastes damn good). Sprinkle a bit of olive oil of the frying pan, heat it on medium high and sautée the pancetta until it's crisp and the clinging fat is golden brown. Take it off the heat and set the pancetta aside, but don't wash that frying pan yet!

On a mixing bowl, thoroughly mix two whole eggs, plus two egg yolks. Most recipes call for three eggs plus one yolk, but I found that the higher yolk-to-white ratio helps prevent clumping. Whisk in the 1/2 cup of grated cheese. Add the reserved pancetta as well, and mix everything together.

Back to the pot. Once the water is boiling, add the spaghetti and gently stir it to prevent sticking. After a few minutes (but before it's done), pick up 1/2 cup of the cooking water and slowly integrate it with the egg mix. This will also help prevent clumping, especially if your eggs had been kept in the fridge.

When the spaghetti is al dente, reserve an additional 1 and 1/2 cup of the cooking water, and drain the pasta. Put the frying pan on low heat and immediately add the spaghetti to it. Fold it once or twice to coat it with the oil that remained from frying the pancetta, and add the egg mix.

Now, here comes the crucial part. You want the egg mix to thicken into a creamy sauce, coating the spaghetti. Keep folding the spaghetti and gently stirring the sauce so that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the frying pan. If necessary, add some of the reserved cooking water. I usually end up adding about 1/2 cup (in addition to the 1/2 cup I had already whisked into the egg mix). Take that opportunity to grind some black pepper onto the spaghetti and mix it in.

Once you've reached the desired consistency, that's it! Take it off the heat and serve immediately. If you're serving on individual plates, grate some cheese (perhaps some of the Pecorino/Parmesan mix) and grind some more black pepper on the pasta. If you're serving on a bowl, leave the grated cheese and pepper grinder on the table for your guests. And make sure they use them!

Finally, although pasta is usually associated with wine, I find that Spaghetti alla Carbonara goes great with beer, especially with lighter ales.



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Pushing up Python on Android

A few days ago, I put on the manliest voice I could muster and made an announcement to my wife: "Stand aside, woman! I am going to the gym!"

Needless to say, she was thoroughly unimpressed but somewhat amused when, half an hour later, she found me at the computer, programming.

Despite what she might tell you, I hadn't given up on exercising. You see, I had recently taken up the One Hundred Pushups, Two Hundred Situps and Two Hundred Squats programs. These involve a few sets of a varying number of repetitions each, with timed pauses between each one. So, for instance, on my first day I'd do 10 pushups, rest for 60 seconds, do 12 pushups, rest, 7 pushups, rest, 7 pushups, rest, and finally as many pushups as I can (but at least 9). These numbers of repetitions vary as you progress. My problem was keeping track of how many repetitions of which exercise to perform on any given day.

Now, there are nice PDFs with the whole exercise program on each site, but they're supposed to be printed. On paper. How low tech! Some people use spreadsheets, but... Meh. So I decided I should turn to my Android phone for help.

There is an iPhone app for One Hundred Pushups et al, and at first I considered writing an Android app to match. And I still do, but, of course, that's a full-on project, one that would definitely not be usable in time for me to exercise that night. So: pragmatic program, must be running in a very short time (my wife was laughing out loud, by then) and improve as need arises. This looks like a job for... Python!

Python is not (yet?) a first-class citizen on the Android, but it's a respectable second-class one, thanks to Damon Kohler and his Android Scripting Environment. ASE lets you run several interpreted languages on the Android, amongst them Python, Lua, Perl and JRuby. However, these are limited on what they can access on the Android API. More specifically, you can't build arbitrary user interfaces or create new activities (though you can invoke existing ones).

Still, having a Python interpreter on your mobile can be handy. I needed to input three sets of repetitions (one for each exercise program), and have Android let me know how many repetitions to do next, and for how long to rest between them. I'm still meddling with this code (trying to weigh making it better versus building a proper app versus actually, you know, exercising), this is just a quick hack I cooked up to get going, but it's growing on me. Anyway, here it is:

from time import sleep
import android

droid = android.Android()

# How long to rest between repetitions
rest = 60
# Warning before starting next round
wake = 10

# One line per exercise set, each number of repetitions separated by spaces
# For instance (pushups, situps, squats):
# 10 12 7 7 >=9
# 9 9 6 6 >=8
# 19 24 19 19 >=27
user_input = droid.getInput("Series", "Describe all repetition sets in your series:")
series = [i for i in user_input["result"].splitlines() if i.strip()]

def interval(theres_more=True, rest=rest, wake=wake):
    droid.makeToast("Rest for %d seconds..." % rest)
    sleep(rest - wake)

    if theres_more:
        droid.makeToast("Ready? %d seconds to start!" % wake)

    if theres_more:

for s in series:
    droid.getInput("New series!", "Ready?")
    sets = s.split()
    l = len(sets)
    for n, repetitions in enumerate(sets):
        droid.getInput(repetitions, '(press Ok when finished)')

droid.makeToast("w00t! Congratulations!")

(you can also download it here)

As explained in the comments, it initially expects lines containing the number of repetitions on each set. So, if I'm undertaking pushups, situps and squats (respectively), I might input:

10 12 7 7 >=9
9 9 6 6 >=8
19 24 19 19 >=27

Of course, ">=9" is not a number, but the script will use whatever you input there as labels for prompting you to perform your repetitions.

You'll notice that the script uses getInput for displaying messages when it expects the user to press "Ok" (even though it doesn't expect any typed input at all). That's because, currently, getInput is the only graphical widget provided by the the Python proxy for the Android API. But more on that later.

So, try it out (if you're willing to exercise at all, or if you're just curious), and let me know what you think! Did it help you exercise?

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